While RFID may not be the golden ticket to distribution success proponents had envisioned a few years back, it has hardly faded from the scene. Far from it, in fact. Although the RFID tag may not yet be as ubiquitous as the bar code, plenty of companies out there are putting the technology to use in their distribution and logistics operations.
For evidence of that you need look no farther than the Federalsburg, Md., consolidation center run by H&M Bay, a third-party logistics service provider that specializes in climate-controlled less-than-truckload (LTL) freight. At the Federalsburg site, H&M Bay is using an RFID-based system to track frozen and refrigerated goods moving through its fast-paced transload and cross-dock operations.
To understand what makes RFID a particularly good fit for this application, you have to know a little bit about H&M Bay's business. The company operates as a truck broker, with a network of over 10,000 owner-operators nationwide. Although it also offers truckload services, its specialty is managing LTL movements of frozen and refrigerated commodities. As part of that service, it operates six consolidation centers around the country (including the Federalsburg facility), where regional LTL shipments are received and combined into new loads for delivery across the 48 contiguous states.
The Federalsburg site operates on a weekly schedule, with freight consolidation taking place on Saturdays. But goods may begin arriving as early as Thursday. To accommodate these early arrivals, the company in 2008 built a cold storage area at one end of the 66-door facility, where the goods can be held at the appropriate temperature until it's time for outbound loading.
One of the decisions the company faced early on was how to track the goods held in the temporary storage facility. H&M Bay wanted a system that would not only allow it to locate the goods quickly but also enable it to track how much time they spent in storage and when they were shipped out. After weighing a number of options, H&M Bay settled on RFID.
For a fast-paced operation like H&M Bay's, RFID offers a number of advantages over other data-collection methods. For one thing, there's the technology's extended read range. With RFID, there's no need for lift truck drivers to climb down off their vehicles to scan a pallet's label the way they would with, say, bar codes. They simply pick up the load and drive past a reader that automatically captures data from the pallet's tag. For another, there's the technology's speed and flexibility. RFID not only provides high read rates but also allows for multiple tags to be read simultaneously.
Working with its integrator, Franwell Inc. of Lakeland, Fla., H&M Bay designed a system that's easy to use but still provides all the tracking data it needs. As a truck arrives, workers wheel a portable cart to the dock door. The cart holds a Datamax printer that creates two 4- by 8-inch passive RFID labels containing information about the product—the order number, the shipper, the number of cases on the pallet, the shipping destination, and the truck on which it will eventually be loaded. One RFID label is applied to the top of the pallet, while the other goes on the front. The lift truck then takes the load and drops it at either the cooler entrance or the freezer entrance.
From there, one of three reach trucks retrieves the pallet for putaway in the appropriate storage area. Each of these reach trucks is outfitted with a Motorola RD 5000 RFID reader mounted on its forks. The reader is tethered to a Motorola VC5090 mobile computer on board the vehicle. As the truck picks up the load, its reader automatically captures the data from the pallet's front tag and transmits it to the onboard computer. The computer, in turn, transmits the data to the company's customized inventory system.
As the reach truck enters a cold room, an overhead Motorola XR Series RFID reader retrieves the information from the pallet's top tag. That information is then relayed to the inventory system to let it know that the product is now located in either the cooler or the freezer and is not still sitting in a staging area or on the dock.
The storage area features 1,000 pallet positions within five levels of racking. To expedite the putaway process, H&M Bay's RFID system allows drivers to decide where to deposit their loads (usually at the closest available position) rather than sending them to a pre-assigned location. This saves valuable time because it eliminates the need for drivers to consult a sheet or display screen to find out where they're supposed to put the pallet and then search among the racks for the correct slot.
As the driver places a load onto a rack, the lift truck's reader captures the location data from a tag permanently attached to the rack's inside upright. The onboard computer then displays the location and asks the driver to confirm the information. This assures complete accuracy, although the company says that because of the way the system is set up—with tags permanently mounted on the racks' metal interior and a configuration that allows for adjustments to the scanners' read range—there's little chance that a neighboring tag will be read in error.
Once the driver has confirmed the position, the inventory system is updated again with the pallet's new location. If customers wish, they can log onto H&M Bay's system to confirm that their product is safely in cold storage.
When loading begins on Saturday, the reach truck drivers are handed a list of pallets to pull from the racks. As the drivers exit the cooler or freezer areas with their loads, the interrogator positioned above the door reads the tags, and the system is updated to show they're no longer in cold storage. The pallets are then whisked to the appropriate staging area for loading onto outbound trucks.
Need for speed
As for how the RFID tracking system has been working out, H&M Bay reports that the technology has allowed it to keep precise track of each product's location with no slowdown in the workflow. On top of that, the company estimates that it has saved about 25 percent in labor costs compared with other types of data-collection methods. Drivers do not have to leave their vehicles to scan a bar code or enter location information into a computer terminal, which expedites the loading and unloading process. And because drivers are free to choose storage locations, they don't have to waste time trying to find pre-assigned positions.
"Everything happens so quickly here," says John Walker, H&M Bay's software development manager. "In our operations, it is up to the guys on the fork trucks to manage the process. With the RFID setup, we have a mobile system that allows them to do the transactions quickly."